By LISA VAN DUSEN
LONDON - Maybe all former great powers go through a post-world domination identity crisis, but in Britain these days the gap between the centuries when this was the land of answers and the current climate of a million and one questions feels well worth minding.
Among the nation's current preoccupations (aside from "Are Madge and Guy Ritchie really getting divorced?"), are "How and when will Gordon Brown ever leave?" and "If the Americans could elect George W. Bush not once but twice, how do we know they won't inflict another imbecile on an unwitting world?"
The Brown question should be of great interest to Canadians because, as an object lesson in the perils of protracted pretendership, it both echoes the unfortunate trajectory of Jean Chretien successor Paul Martin and serves as a cautionary tale for leader-in-waiting Michael Ignatieff.
For much of the 10 years he spent as chancellor of the exchequer under Tony Blair, Brown played all the games of a classic All About Eve understudy, from unsolicited regular protestations of loyalty to the current leader to strategic leaks from his shadow courtiers.
Now, with his first anniversary gift from British voters a dismal 26 per cent for Labour in the polls against 49 per cent for David Cameron's Tories, Brown shuffles through his days like a shell-shocked Madame Tussaud rendition of "Be careful what you wish for."
It hasn't helped that he recently hosted the man even less popular among the British, George W. Bush, on his farewell tour, which only reminded everyone of the Labour Party's support of the president's unjustified and politically toxic war in Iraq.
"I hear you'll be leaving office soon" read the joint cartoon bubble on Private Eye's farewell tour cover shot of the two men gripping and grinning.
While there's an unapologetically vulgar sense of relief here that the Bush era, its unpopular war and the political controversies it spawned are drawing to a close, there's also a trepidation that American electoral system, despite its rigorous nomination process, years of campaigning and millions and millions of dollars spent may be inherently flawed. It raises the question, "What if Bush wasn't a fluke?"
This tends to be preceded by a lot of other questions about what John McCain and Barack Obama are really like, the thinking being that if you're glued to MSNBC all day long, you'd know if there were a serious character problem or intellectual deficit.
Their doubts aren't about the things we follow up close -- race or age, experience or temperament. They're about being too far away to watch for things they missed the last time and about what it could mean if Americans elect another president so lacking in respect for history and his place in it.
Luckily, there are enough domestic political diversions, such as the Brown leadership issue, Cameron's own caucus dramas and the antics of colourful new lord mayor of London, former Spectator columnist and MP Boris Johnson (BoJo in Private Eye shorthand) to generate plenty of questions between now and November.
It doesn't take too many blocks of walking in London to be reminded of just how much the British know about the burden of accountability on citizens of great powers to give the world the right leader at the right time. They also know better than most that it may be one of those things people only learn in the getting wrong.